Legalese and Love
Good morning! And, happy 4th Advent! The Greatest Story Ever Told
It’s hard to believe that Christmas is just 3 days away – on the one hand, it feels like the season of Advent just started; that Thanksgiving was just yesterday, wasn’t it? But, on the other hand, I have done a good job of watching several Christmas themed movies already – The Preachers Wife and White Christmas, among others – and, of course, I have watched the Christmas themed episodes of some of my favorite televisions shows – The Office, Parks and Rec and, of course, the Vicar of Dibley. Which, arguably, has some of the best Christmas specials on television, if you asked me.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Vicar of Dibley. Have you heard of it? Well, if you are not familiar – it is was a show made by the BBC and was only on for a couple of seasons – but, it is really known for its Specials. Several of which were made around the Christmas season. The premise of the show is of a woman who is a Church of England vicar who is called to serve a country parish – a village by the name of Dibley. She is a bright and spunky gal and the members of her parish range from the dim-witted Alice who serves as her right-hand woman and best friend to the crass and ornery farmer named Owen.
In one of the Christmas episodes, the dim-witted Alice has her first ever good idea and suggests that the parish use Owen’s farm to host a live nativity – kind of a play, where members of the village could walk through the farm, following the star, witnessing the journey of Mary and Joseph to the stable and learning the story of the birth of Jesus. So, the parish members all try out for parts in the play and in one of their meetings, the Vicar shows them the sign she had made to advertise the play. She holds up the sign and it reads: The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Immediately, Owen pipes up and says, “Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t think it is the greatest story every told.” He goes on to tell a brief story of a robbery gone awry that he had read about in the paper and suggests that that was a pretty good story. To which, the Vicar responds, “So, what? You think the Second Greatest Story Ever Told?” At that point, others in the group start to chime in with their suggestions of stories they have recently heard that they think are quite compelling stories. Their suggestions range from a scary story that would be told over a campfire to a hilarious joke heard on late-night television. Finally, after entertaining the conversation for a few minutes, the vicar interjects and reminds them of the Christmas story. She says:
“2000 years ago, a baby is born in a stable – the poorest of the poor – and yet during his lifetime, he says things that were so astonishing that millions of people are still living their lives by them today. He said to love thy neighbor. He told us to turn the other cheek – whatever people might do to us.
Most astonishingly, I believe that this tiny baby boy, actually was the Son of God and when he was younger than I am today, he was brutally crucified for simply telling people to love each other. And, the men who killed him thought, that’s it, that’s the end of it. He’s dead. He’s gone. And yet, here we are, 2000 years later, in village in the middle of England, doing a play about his birth. Now, I think that’s a pretty great story.”
They all agreed and the poster remained as it was. It’s a great little episode – full of hilarious moments of human error in the midst of the sacred. And it is a good reminder of this miraculous Christmas story that we have been preparing to hear all season. We’ve spent the season preparing for what it to come – we’ve listened to voices of the prophets, psalmists and the gospel writers and we find ourselves 3 days before Christmas with a text that draws us even nearer to the big moment.
This morning’s text comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew 1:18-25. As you will hear, the gospel writer prefaces the story by saying this is how the birth took place – following a long list of Jesus’ genealogy, we come to this text that at first glance, seems to lack suspense and passion. I want to invite you to lean in to this story. When you hear this familiar text, I invite you to listen as if it is the Greatest Story Ever Told – listening for what we might learn from Joseph about what it means to dwell within the bounds of a legalistic world and to be open to the creative and transforming love of God. So, let us listen for a Word. Let us pray:
Startle us, O God, with your love. On this Advent morning, may we be attentive to your love for the world and may our hearts and minds be vulnerable to your care.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, it is 3 days before Christmas and we already have a bit of the birth story. You may be aware that only two of the four Gospels chronicle the birth of Jesus: the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. And of the two, the Luke text is far more familiar – it details Mary’s experience beginning with her detailed encounter with the angel of the Lord when she learned of her pregnancy, to visiting her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with a son who would be John the Baptist, to the story that we will hear on Christmas Eve this year. But, unlike the Gospel of Luke, Matthew tells the story of Joseph. There isn’t much back story offered in Matthew’s account – we have the genealogical account of Joseph’s ancestry and then this story, that we just heard, of Joseph’s experience of learning about Mary’s pregnancy. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret from this text in Matthew that with the omission of Mary’s experience of the conception, there must be something to be said of the nature of God through the character of Joseph in this moment.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. He was planning to dismiss her quietly. But, what the narrator omits from the account is the anguish and betrayal Joseph must have felt. I can just imagine the swirling thoughts that must have dizzied Joseph’s mind when he found out that Mary was pregnant. What in the world is going on? How could this be? What will the neighbors say? How will it look? What do I do? What does the law command? Could this be real? Joseph was a righteous man – which means that, by law, Joseph should divorce Mary, believing her to have been unfaithful. No one can blame Joseph for thinking Mary was unfaithful – after all, it’s not every day that a woman finds herself pregnant. Joseph has every reason to divorce Mary and frankly, it would be the easier path to take – no one would dispute that. The law does not need room for ‘forgive and forget’. The law does not need room for ‘let’s talk about it or let’s work on it’. But, we begin to see that Joseph’s righteousness is more than legalistic. He does not want to humiliate her – he has a relationship with her. He doesn’t make a snap decision and humiliate her the moment she shares the news of her pregnancy with him – rather, he pauses and ponders. And, he sleeps on it.
While Joseph sleeps, an angel appears to him and tells him to do something quite contrary to what he thought he would do. Instead of telling Joseph to act according to the law and dismiss Mary for being unfaithful, the angel miraculously tells Joseph not to be afraid, that the child has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. And in that moment, we begin to see how Joseph reflects the dynamic experience of being present to the divine in the world – not just in Spirit. (pause) He was confronted with the question of what is the faithful thing to do, according to the law – and what is the faithful way to be, according to the love of God. The neighbors wouldn’t have judged him or look downed their noses at him if he had dismissed her. He didn’t need to tell others about his dream. No one would have faulted him had he chosen to dismiss Mary quietly. But, instead, Joseph chose the faithful way to be – he chose to be open to the creative and loving presence of God.
Now, we, the readers, have the benefit of knowing the whole story, knowing how his decision impacts the entire world for generations and generations – but in this moment, Joseph does not have the benefit of hindsight. But, he does have some clues given to him by the angel to help him understand the situation more deeply. The angel quotes a prophecy from Isaiah, that a young woman would conceive and bear a son, who would be named Jesus – ‘Jesus’ being the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ which reminds Jews of the Hebrew word for ‘salvation’. But, I can’t imagine Joseph could have envisioned what this salvation would mean for him or for the world. He couldn’t have known at that point that deciding not to dismiss Mary and to name the child as his own, that he would then journey from that moment to Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from the temple to the cross to the empty tomb. I would imagine that if he had been told all of that by the angel in the dream, it would be too overwhelming to comprehend. But, what I can imagine is what it was like for Joseph to take this step in the journey. I can imagine what it would have been like for Joseph to survey the information at hand – his knowledge of the law, his relationship with Mary, his faithfulness to God – and he chose the faithful way to be – engaging the legalese and love in that moment. And, what’s more extraordinary – is that once he learned that he could be instrumental in bearing witness to the love of God into the world, he didn’t think twice about it. He could participate and so he did. And all of life changed in the most miraculous of ways – entirely unimagined by human convention but extraordinarily life-giving to all humanity.
And, it wasn’t just Joseph reflecting unconventional behavior. Prior to our text this morning, the first 17 verses of this first chapter of Matthew is a long genealogy beginning with Abraham, spanning 14 generations to King David, then 14 generations from David to the deportation to Babylon and then it spans another 13 generations to Joseph. And, at first glance, there is a glaring problem with this genealogy – namely that the child that is to be born, the Messiah, is born to Mary, and not – at least biologically — to Joseph. But, this is where we begin to see a mystery of the nature of God unfold before our eyes – we see, again, how God has never quite done for Gods people as Gods people expect God to do – God goes above and beyond our imaginations, beyond conventional wisdom and law and shows a new, more life-giving path. In verse 21, the problem of the genealogy is solved when the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus. In this simple act of naming the child, Joseph acknowledges that he is adopting Jesus, legally, into David’s lineage. And, in doing so, Jesus becomes the 14th generation since the deportation to Babylon – son of David, son of Abraham. God fulfills the law in an unconventional way and we begin to learn from this story that there isn’t a tension between the law and love – but, that the law and presence of love shows a new, more life-giving path.
Joseph would have been fine had he chosen the other path and dismissed Mary. He would have been in accordance with the law and his life would have been fine. But, instead, Joseph chose to be open to the power of God’s love and can you imagine missing out on the life he did lead? Joseph didn’t choose this path because it was the right thing to do – he chose the path because it was the way of fruitful life. And, so it is with us. We can choose the faithful way to be, which is not simply choose a life that we can get by with. We can ignore the 3,049 men, women and children who slept in shelters in DC this past Wednesday night, or we can engage in work like that of Miriam’s Kitchen to understand that our community is made up of more than those who live in fancy houses. We can look down upon those in prison for violating the law, or we can seek the unconventional path, which leads to healing for all communities. We can ignore the 11,420 children have perished in the Syrian conflict, because we don’t live in a war zone, and we can ignore the 2,711 children killed by gun violence in 2010 in the US alone, because our children sleep safely in their beds, OR we can feel empowered by the love of God to speak up for the voiceless. We can make decisions that reside with a particular order of law and feel justified in doing so. Or, we can allow ourselves to listen for the angels voice, be vulnerable to the mystery, and be witness to the freedom and the miracles of the love of God. Life is all the more enriched because it is in those places, where God incarnate enters in. Life becomes more colorful, more vibrant, more exciting and more fulfilling.
This truly is the Greatest Story Ever Told – the birth of this child – the story of God’s deep and compassionate love for the world, God incarnate. We are in a season of preparation for this baby to arrive and we wait expectantly. Our waiting is not passive – it is vigilant for new life and O, how exciting that life will be.